Jon Blevins, Ph.D., in his lab with a Cytiva ÄKTA pure chromatography system used for protein purification in his research on tick-borne relapsing fever.
| LITTLE ROCK – Researchers at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) will use a new federal grant to study the genetic systems of the bacteria responsible for tick-borne relapsing fever to better understand their molecular functions and to reveal possible drug targets.
UAMS’s Jon Blevins, Ph.D., a professor in the College of Medicine’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology, is leading the four-year study funded by a $2.4 million grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Although they were identified more than 100 years ago, scientists know very little about the spiral-shaped bacteria that cause relapsing fever, which develops when bacteria are passed from ticks to their animal hosts, a said Blevins.
“Our team now has the ability to answer many questions through the power of molecular genetics,” he said, adding that “UAMS’ cutting-edge DNA and next-generation sequencing core will play an essential role”.
Soft ticks are the primary vectors of tick-borne relapsing fever bacteria, As Borrelia fever. While hard ticks can transmit Borrelia bacteria, these ticks are best known as vectors for other more common tick-borne infections, including Lyme disease, ehrlichiosis, and Rocky Mountain spotted fever.
In the United States, tick-borne relapsing fever has been reported in 15 states where soft ticks live: Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wyoming, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Although potentially fatal, tick-borne relapsing fever infections are relatively rare, with fewer than 100 cases reported each year in the United States, Blevins said. Infections are often linked to exploring caves or camping in rustic cabins in the mountains, where colonies of soft ticks that carry the bacteria often hide. Symptoms of relapsing fever include multiple recurring episodes of high fever, which usually last about three days, followed by seven days without fever.
“People who’ve had it tell me it’s the worst fever they’ve ever had,” Blevins said.
Prior to the NIH grant, Blevins and a collaborator developed methods and tools to genetically manipulate B. inflamed bacteria, allowing them to disrupt key signaling systems at the molecular level and study the effects this has on the bacteria.
Known as the cyclic dinucleotide second messenger (cyclic di-AMP) signaling pathway, it is found in all pathogens Borrelia bacteria, including the bacteria associated with Lyme disease, another important tick-borne infection.
“We know that this cyclic di-AMP signaling system is extremely important because we can inactivate it in B. inflamedand that bacteria can no longer infect an animal,” Blevins said.
“Because bacteria require these cyclic dinucleotide-dependent signaling systems for infection, they could be excellent targets for the development of new antibiotics,” Blevins said. “We hope that our work can also provide insight into this signaling system in the closely related field Borrelia which causes the most common tick-borne infection, Lyme disease.
The research team includes collaborators from Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Blevins said he was able to get the NIH grant because of his previous research on the bacteria supported by grants from the Center for Microbial Pathogenesis and Host Inflammatory Responses at UAMS. The center is funded by the NIH Centers of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE). Blevins’ research was also supported by a seed grant from the UAMS Vice Chancellor of Research.
The contents of this press release on National Institute of Allergy And Infectious Diseases award number R01AI170892 are the sole responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the NIH.
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